Updated: Jan 5, 2020
As we get ready to begin fall camp, it’s time for another one of the Heel Tough Blog’s exclusive in-depth position previews. The series will take a look at every player on the Tar Heels 2019 roster and tell you the impact we expect each to have and give you the projected depth chart position-by-position. We continue with a look at the Tar Heels 2019 linebackers.
The Tar Heel linebacking corps under Larry Fedora’s staff was always headlined by one standout player and depth issues. In year one under Jay Bateman, that pattern holds true.
With Cole Holcomb graduated, it seems like senior Dominique Ross becomes that new star at linebacker. Ross had a breakout junior season, finishing fifth on the team in total tackles with 47 and second amongst linebackers. Early in the season, he thrived in coverage situations, finishing the year with five pass deflections. With him expected to move to one of the inside linebacker positions, that coverage ability should help to ease some of those middle-of-the-field pass defense concerns that were exposed last year. While Ross might not have the numbers that Holcomb did before him, expect a big senior season for the veteran who will headline this 2019 linebacking group. The only issue for the Tar Heels surrounding Ross will be figuring out how to replace him in the first half of the season opener, which he is suspended for.
The other three starters that we are projecting would all be first time starters. Alongside Ross in the middle is where we expect to find sophomore Jeremiah Gemmel. In his first two seasons on campus, Gemmel has only been able to register one total tackle, but the spring standout took a huge step to becoming the new volume tackling linebacker for the Tar Heels this offseason. Gemmel has been raved about as being the most consistent tackler throughout each of the past two offseason, now that just has to translate on to the field. It took some time to get Gemmel to the size he needs to played inside linebacker at the ACC level, but if he can be the sideline-to-sideline linebacker in the middle that he was at the prep level, he could have a breakout sophomore season at inside linebacker for the Tar Heels.
The edge positions are the most interesting in terms of who starts because everything remains so fluid. One starting spot should go to sophomore Jake Lawler, who was challenged by many to show that his 4✮ ranking as a recruit was not a fluke. This offseason he has done just that and now looks poised to start at one of the outside linebacker positions here this fall. In a two point stance, something Lawler did more often than you may realize at the prep level, his athleticism and speed will be better showcased than they were out of the 5-tech defensive end spot that he played in John Papuchis’ defense.
Lawler looks like he is the favorite to be the SAM linebacker in this defense, meaning the RUSH end position will likely come down to two names. Senior Allen Cater is the veteran of the group and, based on last years flashes as the season progressed, should have a significant role somewhere on this defense this season. The issue for Cater: he is coming off a brutal leg injury suffered last season against and missed the spring recovering from it, opening the door for others to take more reps than he has in the new system. Even if he doesn’t win the starting job, it feels safe to say that his numbers (12 ttkl, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 scks) will improve from a year ago.
Sophomore Chris Collins is the other name that many feel will have a big role this season out of that RUSH end spot. Last year as a true freshman, Collins played in six games, registering six total tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.0 sacks, headlined by strong performances against Virginia and Western Carolina. While Collins hasn’t been talked about a lot by the media outlets this offseason, he fits the RUSH end position perfectly and has the talent to take a major step forward in his sophomore season. It is the reason he is listed as one of the Heel Tough Blog’s five breakout players for the 2019 season and has a legitimate shot to start against South Carolina.
Depth at linebacker is thin overall, as is the experience outside of senior Jonathan Smith. When he will be able to get on the field is a big question, though, as he is indefinitely suspended after missing fall camp due to academic issues. This is a big loss for the Tar Heels in terms of depth at inside linebacker, despite Smith having yet to develop into what many thought he could be when he signed as part of the 2016 class. Last year, Smith finished with 28 total tackles, 3.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks in seven games, down from his sophomore numbers. Still, he is experience is valuable in a linebacking corps that has a true freshman and converted quarterback scheduled to play significant roles. When Smith does return he’ll be a valuable rotational player. Until then, though the Tar Heels will have to find some new names to step up in the middle.
In talking to GoHeels’ Pat James earlier this week, it is our belief, and many around the football program’s belief, that junior linebacker and converted quarterback Chazz Surratt will be the starter alongside Jeremiah Gemmel when the Tar Heels take the field against South Carolina next Saturday. Surratt has taken gigantic leaps throughout spring and fall camp after making the move back in the winter to linebacker. His athleticism was something we expected to see shine, but his sure-handed tackling ability is a bit of a surprise. Even when Dominique Ross and Jonathan Smith are back on the field, Surratt will have a significant rotational role thanks to the work he has put in this offseason.
True freshman Eugene Asante may have been the most important commitment for the Tar Heels in the 2019 recruiting class and now he is expected to play a huge role in his first season on campus. Although he didn’t join the team until fall camp, he has quickly made a nice impression on the staff looks to be everything that we thought he could be in the middle of that Tar Heel defense. He’ll get his chances early against South Carolina next Saturday in what could be the start of a big true freshman season for him.
Redshirt freshman Matthew Flint should also hold down a significant rotational role this season. Flint has been moved around the linebacking corps throughout the offseason and the Huntsville, AL product is set for a step forward this fall after finishing 2018 with three total tackles and a tackle for loss. While he hasn’ talked about nearly as much as Surratt or Asante, there is reason to believe that he should become a large part of the rotation at linebacker in the 2019 season.
The outside linebacker group, like the inside linebackers, have some bodies, but most are unproven. Junior Tyrone Hopper is the veteran of the group, but has been able to sustain a consistent role, in large part due to injury issues. In his first three seasons on campus, Hopper has totaled just 18 total tackles in 15 games played, but now he will be back at the position he was originally recruited to play by Larry Fedora and his staff. Hopper will battle for reps at the SAM linebacker spot this season. Let's see if that what move will finally allow Hopper to take on a bigger role in this Tar Heel linebacking corps than he has had so far in his young career.
True freshman Khadry Jackson has been moved back and forth between outside linebacker and safety, but for the Heel Tough Blog’s previews, were are going to place him at outside linebacker where we ultimately feel he ends up. Jackson should challenge for reps at the SAM linebacker spot immediately after a very solid spring and fall camp. At the least, Jackson will have a major role on special teams.
The Tar Heels will have five walk-on linebackers on the roster for the 2019 season. Redshirt freshman Alex Nobles had a nice spring and should help to add some depth at the RUSH end position, while true freshman preferred walk-on Parks Cochrane will be counted in to step up in the middle with senior walk-on Austin Dowler not returning to the team in the fall. Junior Hunter Sheridan, redshirt freshman Dilan Gonzalez and true freshman Jake Harkelroad will also provide depth.
Projected Depth Chart
#17 Chris Collins, So.
#33 Allen Cater, Sr.
#97 Alex Nobles, RFr.
#43 Hunter Sheridan, Jr.
# 3 Dominique Ross, Sr. (suspended for first half of Week 1)
#21 Chazz Surratt, Jr.
#30 Matthew Flint, RFr.
#26 Jake Harkelroad, Fr.
#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, So.
# 7 Jonathan Smith, Sr. (suspended indefinitely)
#24 Eugene Asante, Fr.
#49 Parks Cochrane, Fr.
#14 Jake Lawler, So.
#42 Tyrone Hopper, Jr.
# 8 Khadry Jackson, Fr.
#48 Dilan Gonzalez, RFr.